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California and the West

Times' William Montalbano Dies

March 20, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and ALVIN SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

William D. Montalbano, a prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter whose 38-year career spanned most of the globe and produced some of the wittiest and most elegant foreign correspondence of his era, died Thursday of a heart attack. He was 57.

Montalbano, The Times' London bureau chief, collapsed on a street near his home.

"He had just had a bagel and all his kids bummed money off of him. Then he left for work," said his wife, Rosanna. "He was walking through his favorite market when he just dropped to the ground. By the time the paramedics arrived, there was no heart activity. He didn't feel any pain."

In a career that took him to more than 100 countries on assignments including wars on three continents, two papal conclaves and the gamut of human achievement and foibles, Montalbano lived and wrote with a vitality admired and envied by his colleagues.

As his stories demonstrated, Montalbano had a way with words and a way with people, talents that combined to provide readers with distinctive reporting that stirred emotions and informed minds.

"Bill Montalbano was one of the most gifted foreign correspondents of our generation," said Michael Parks, Times editor and senior vice president. "Bill had a keen eye for a story, and he found them all over Latin America, China and Europe. He wrote with a distinct style and great verve. And he believed that journalism was both very serious--essential for our democracy--and a lot of fun."

Montalbano also had an incredible ability to write fast and well, to make a deadline and not miss the point. He was awakened at 1 a.m. in London last Aug. 31, and told that Britain's Princess Diana might be dying in Paris after an automobile accident.

He had 40 minutes to make the first edition.

Montalbano made the deadline, rewrote the story twice in the next six hours and the next week produced, under pressure, a dozen outstanding stories. Just last week, he won a Times editorial award for his "tour de force of pure writing" in covering the princess' death.

His dispatches for The Times, where he had worked since 1983, and the Miami Herald earned him more than a dozen awards.

"Bill was a correspondent of enormous talents who approached his work with zest and fun, with a sense of discovery and adventure, but also with great care for accuracy, fairness and language," said Simon K.C. Li, The Times' foreign editor. "His stories made distant events and issues real and immediate. His very distinctive voice was eloquent and compassionate; it lent grace, class and sophistication to the pages of The Times."

Montalbano broke into journalism as a reporter for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. He first worked abroad in 1964 as a reporter for the Buenos Aires Herald in Argentina.

In 1967, he joined the Miami Herald as a Latin America correspondent and later held several editing positions. He also served as the paper's bureau chief in Beijing. At The Times, he was bureau chief in San Salvador, Buenos Aires, Rome and London.

Along the way, he turned more than his share of memorable phrases. A string of fatalities among foreign tourists who collapsed after overeating in China became "death by duck" in one Montalbano report.

He wrote about an English homemaker who came across the grave of a Sioux chief and led a crusade to have his remains returned home; about how American concert pianist Dorothy Eustis ended up as a mute and bedridden mystery woman in Venice until adoring Italians came to her aid. But his storytelling gifts were evident in even the briefest of dispatches.

Above all, he was a stylist--a man who sharpened his prose with what Juan Tamayo, a Miami Herald colleague, called "slashing verbs . . . clean and elegant."

"His love for the language was unforgettable," said Carl Hiaasen, another Herald colleague. "The care he took for every adjective, metaphor and transition is something damn few writers in our business care about. It leapt out at you off a newspaper page.

Hiaasen and Montalbano co-authored three crime novels, and Montalbano wrote two works of fiction on his own, "The Sinners of San Ramon" and "Basilica." The latter, to be published in January by G.P. Putnam's Sons, is described by its editor as an "ecclesiastical thriller" about a Latin American pope and draws on the author's experience in seven years as a Vatican correspondent.

Montalbano was a rumpled, larger-than-life man with a gruff manner, whom colleagues remembered more as a sensitive, caring friend who took pride in mentoring younger reporters and arranging papal blessings for children.

"To some, he came across as a Hemingway-esque kind of figure, but in fact, he was devoted to his family and was a pussycat at heart," said Tyler Marshall, a Times contemporary now in the paper's Washington bureau.

Montalbano once described himself on a resume as "bearded, balding, nearsighted and rotund but a doting husband and a wonderful father."

He is survived by his wife and their three children--Tiva, 18, Teya, 16, and Daniel, 14; two grown children from a previous marriage, Andrea, a producer for NBC's "Today Show," and Dennis, a Northern California lawyer; and a grandson.

"We should all be so lucky as to die on a beautiful sunny day in London at a favorite open-air market," said Rosanna.

Boudreaux is The Times' Rome bureau chief. Former Foreign Editor Shuster is now senior consulting editor of The Times.

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